“Last night was amazing,” Madsen posted on her tracker on May 27. “Waters calm as I’ve ever seen.” In these rare moments of tranquility, she would stop rowing for a few minutes, relishing the way the ocean’s immensity consolidated into tiny laps against her boat’s hull. The way the flash of a wahoo, a flying fish, or the crystalline spine of a Portuguese man-of-war reminded her she wasn’t truly alone. How the Milky Way and its showers of shooting stars were so clear they seemed but a few feet away. The vertigo she felt when imagining the great mountains and valleys looming beneath her. “Just to stop every once in a while and listen—I love doing that the most,” Madsen had said on the morning of her departure.
Only a few hundred people have experienced such things. The first recreational ocean row was completed in 1896 by two Norwegian men who crossed the Atlantic, from Manhattan to France, in an 18-foot oak and cedar open rowboat. But the first solo attempt didn’t happen until 1969, when a Brit named John Fairfax rowed for 180 days between the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco, and Hollywood Beach, Florida. It would be another 30 years, in December of 1999, before the first woman, American Tori Murden McClure, completed a nearly 3,000-mile solo ocean row from the Canaries to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. “Women have walked the hero path since the beginning of time, but we are supposed to walk it softly, and we are not supposed to walk it alone,” Murden McClure later wrote in her memoir. “I wouldn’t be a victim of circumstance.” Seventeen other women have since followed in Murden McClure’s footsteps. Madsen was determined to be the 18th.
There’s little glamour in such an obscure passion. Although Madsen was able to win a fight with the VA for more robust disability payments, she relied on organizations like the California Paralyzed Veterans Association to pay for travel expenses to rowing events.
Superficial media interest merely surfaced before and after a row—it seemed only tragedy attracted mainstream attention. “What goes on in the middle, that’s just personal struggle,” said Rob Eustace, whose 52-day San Francisco-to-Hawaii mission in 2014 remains the fastest ever solo row of the route. People drawn again and again to something as solitary and thankless as crossing an ocean alone, Eustace said, yearn “to achieve that feeling of being so small.” Madsen had that longing, but she was also afflicted by self-doubt. “She did it to prove she could,” Deb said. “It was never going to be over until the solo row.”
The rhythmic movement of her oars plying the water always brought Madsen back to her last accident—the one that lit the fire within. On a trip to San Francisco in 1994, her wheelchair’s wheels jammed in a crack at the edge of a train platform, and she tipped off onto the tracks. “Funny things go through your head when you believe you only have seconds of living left,” she wrote. Mostly, though, she thought about a health care worker who had once told her she was a “waste of a human life.” Two good Samaritans pulled her from the tracks just before a train screamed past. Of all the hell she had suffered, nothing rattled Madsen as much as this, and right there in that station, she vowed to make a change. “Instead of anger over everything that had happened to me in the last couple of years,” she continued, “I should have been more appreciative of the life I had left.”
She returned to Long Beach and signed up for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, where she went on to win five gold medals, in swimming, wheelchair slalom, and billiards. She joined a few basketball teams. And a few years later, she found rowing, which came more naturally to her than any other sport. She quickly won her first rowing gold in a five-mile ocean race in San Diego. Then, in 2002, at age 42, she entered the World Rowing Championship—her first international rowing competition—and took silver. For the next four years, Madsen went undefeated. “My Olympic dream,” she wrote, “became my Paralympic dream.”
In 2007, a social worker named Deb Moeller showed up at Long Beach’s Pete Archer Rowing Center, where Madsen ran the California Adaptive Rowing Program, a nonprofit that introduces physically and intellectually challenged children and adults to rowing. Deb had brought with her a young man who was struggling with adjusting to life in a wheelchair. She watched from a distance as Madsen patiently guided him on his first row. She fell in love with the way Madsen refused to accept his disability, or her own, or anyone’s, as some kind of executioner of dreams. After a few months of spending time together, Madsen put it to Deb bluntly: “I don’t want to date anyone, because I’m going to row across the ocean in December.” Instead, she asked Deb to marry her. (Though they wouldn’t tie the knot until 2013.)
That ocean crossing was the Woodvale Atlantic Rowing Race, a nearly 3,000-mile endeavor from the Canary Islands to Antigua known as the “world’s toughest rowing race.” For Madsen and her partner, Franck Festor, a Frenchman who had lost a leg in his early twenties, it was an opportunity to prove to everyone that people like them—they dubbed themselves “The Differents”—could cross oceans, too. Sixty-six days after leaving the Canaries, on February 7, 2008, Madsen and Festor rowed past the superyachts moored in Antigua’s English Harbour and over the finish line, in tenth place out of 20. On the dock, among the cheering crowd and sprays of champagne, and waiting with Madsen’s wheelchair, was Deb.
Deb had assumed that this was the only ocean Madsen needed to cross. But Madsen was hooked—she had rediscovered the competitive athlete she once thought she’d have to abandon forever.
That summer she qualified for the Beijing Paralympics and finished seventh in the adaptive rowing event. The following year, she captained a team of seven able-bodied athletes through a 58-day row from Western Australia to Mauritius, then the fastest ever Indian Ocean crossing by oar, making her, along with fellow crew member Helen Taylor, the first women to row the Indian. In 2010, she and three other women competed against a team of four men in the Row Around Great Britain—the 51-day circumnavigation was a first for women rowers. (The men’s team couldn’t finish and dropped out.) At the 2012 London Games, Madsen switched things up, using the upper-body strength she’d gained from rowing to take home bronze in the shot put. Four years later, she was back at the Paralympics again, this time in Rio, throwing shot put and javelin.
The coatrack next to the pink bungalow’s front door quickly transformed into a display of ad hoc medals and Olympic uniforms. The living-room walls were plastered with posters from past events. Her Wilson volleyball sat like a shrine in one corner. All the clutter was Madsen’s way of slyly showing off her accomplishments to guests without having to openly boast. “She wanted people to understand that you could do these things, even if you have to do them differently,” Deb told me. “That just because you’re in a chair or have some sort of disability, you shouldn’t count yourself out.”